Published on The American Muslim (June 22nd, 2013)
Several weeks ago, my friend and kindred spirit Qasim Rashid sent me a digital copy of his highly anticipated book The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution and Perseverance. I started reading it one early morning in my flat in Dublin, Ireland, thinking I would read a few chapters and maybe wrap up the entire book in a few weeks. However, 24 hours after I started reading the book, I was finished with it.The Wrong Kind of Muslim is one of those kind of books.
The Wrong Kind of Muslim is the true story of Rashid’s experiences as an Ahmadi, a minority group of Muslims referred to in Pakistan as wajib ul qatl, or “worthy of death.” The book takes you on a riveting personal journey in which Rashid compiles shockingly true stories of terror and compassion. Over several years, Rashid traveled tens of thousands of miles and spent countless hours meeting with Ahmadis from all over the world.
On his journey, Rashid “visited bloodsplattered mosques, touched scars left by gunfire, grenades, and shrapnel, and prayed for the departed at their final resting places.” Rashid “held a mother’s hand as she wept for her son and husband” and “trembled as a son related the intimate account of his father’s cold-blooded execution before his eyes.” On several occasions during his journey, he sat speechless as members of his own family related what they were certain were their final moments on Earth. As you can imagine, I also found myself speechless. It is a powerful journey.
The Wrong Kind of Muslim, however, is about much more than the struggle of being an Ahmadi Muslim. It is a book about religious freedom and tolerance. It is not a story only for Ahmadis; it is for all of us – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Atheists and so on – who face the cancer that is religious bigotry. The Wrong Kind of Muslim is a book which aims “to fight for the rights of all people to enjoy freedom of conscience without oppression – atheists and agnostics being no exception.”
Early in the book, Rashid shares an experience that occurred to him when he was a young teenager in Chicago. He found himself in a quarrel with a passionate Evangelical Christian, who tried to convince him that Christianity – not Islam – was the “true religion.” Frustrated with his inability to adequately respond to the charge that Islam is simply a run-off of Christianity, Rashid returned home to seek advice from his father, himself a religious scholar. Confused as to which was the “right” and “wrong” religion, Rashid struggled to figure out where he stood in his own Muslim beliefs. Rashid’s father responded by saying “No one can tell you what to believe. And I certainly won’t. You’re a smart kid. Go figure it out.” His father continued: “if you want to spend your life just proving other teachings wrong, then what you believe isn’t belief, it’s being a blind follower.”
The exchange between Rashid and his father forms the thesis of The Wrong Kind of Muslim: that freedom of conscience – that inner feeling and voice that guides you to the right behavior – is quintessential if we as human beings are to attain spiritual enlightenment. After talking with his father, Rashid decided to face his fear – that which he did not understand – in studying other faiths by using his conscience. In doing so, he learned the importance of differentiating “between religion and religious manipulation.” “People need to find their own truth through their own experiences,” writes Rashid. He continues: “This is the ultimate aim for the human conscience. Nothing is more important for an individual to be at peace with his Creator.”
Oppression of conscience, for Rashid, can also “transform, or rather, deform, a nation,” which he claims has happened to his native Pakistan. He claims that the unfortunate reality in Pakistan is that “going to worship services has become a life-or-death dare” not only for Ahmadis, but also for Shia Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. He shares the horrible story of his cousin, who was held against his will, without charge, and tortured for six days simply for being an Ahmadi.
In another scene, which brought me to tears, Rashid explains with excruciating detail a terrorist attack at a mosque which claimed the lives of dozens of Ahmadis. An elderly man in his nineties, who had fought in three wars for the Pakistani Army, was killed by a violent extremist simply for being an Ahmadi. Another former Pakistani soldier was also killed in the same attack. Rashid writes that these two men “loved their country. Their proud military service demonstrated that, despite the persecution, they saw no conflict between being an Ahmadi Muslim and being a Pakistani. After decades of service protecting their countrymen, both died at the hands of the citizens they protected.” For Rashid, the terrorists who attacked the Ahmadi mosque and killed these soldiers “did nothing more than prove who were the wrong kind of Muslims.”
The Wrong Kind of Muslim is a call for Pakistan to rid itself of bigotry and return to its pluralist vision as outlined by its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, as Rashid notes, never wanted Pakistan “to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.” Rashid again cites Jinnah, who stated that “[w]e have many non-Muslims – Hindus, Christians, and Parsis, but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as many other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.”
For Pakistan to have any hope of survival, Rashid believes that “its oppressive ideology ingrained in blasphemy laws must be uprooted and discarded, and replaced with education, pluralism, tolerance, and compassion. Pakistan’s current path only leads to self-destruction.” The biggest victims of the persecution of Pakistan’s religious minorities, as Rashid notes, “are Pakistan’s future generations, raised in a world where might is right, and righteousness is wrong.”
Nonetheless, The Wrong Kind of Muslim is not all doom-and-gloom. Rashid shares heart-warming and compassionate stories, such as that of his grandfather, who was protected by non-Ahmadi neighbors from a mob of weapon-holding anti-Ahmadi extremists. He writes about a non-Ahmadi Muslim girl sticking up for a fifteen year-old Ahmadi girl being harassed by her school teacher for her religious beliefs. He notes a story about the Khalifa, or head of the global Ahmadi community, and how he was stabbed in the neck by a terrorist, only to have so much compassion that he actually provided a stipend from his own money to cover the living cost of the family of his attempted murderer. Despite the abhorrent violence against minority religious communities, there are Pakistanis “who love humanity for the sake of humanity in Pakistan.”
Rashid is an American citizen on top of his Ahmadi and Pakistani identities, and he would like nothing more than for his fellow Americans to also adhere to the pluralist vision of the American founding fathers. At one point in the middle of The Wrong Kind of Muslim, Rashid makes an important parallel between extremist groups in Pakistan and the U.S. He refers to the similar radical teachings of the influential Pakistani intellectual Abul A’la Maududi, and the Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, both of whom share a similar hateful ideology towards those outside of their religious circles.
Much of what Rashid posits in The Wrong Kind of Muslim is nearly identical to the ideas on religious freedom of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington, for example, made it clear in a 1792 letter that quarrels over religious differences were “the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.” He was explicit in his recommendation to avoid religious disputes because he felt that such problems “endanger the peace of society.” Similarly, Jefferson stated in 1782 that it does him “no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Writing in a 1789 letter to Francis Hopkinson, Jefferson also wrote that he “never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion… where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.” The Wrong Kind of Muslim echoes Jefferson when Rashid writes that “either you champion [freedom of conscience], or you oppress it. No such middle ground exists.”
The Wrong Kind of Muslim reminds me of how lucky Rashid and I are to be American citizens. While the U.S. is not, never has been, and never will be perfect in terms of protecting and promoting religious freedom, it does serve as a role model to the world for its adherence to pluralism. Rashid reminds us of this point in the story of Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi Pakistani Nobel Prize winner who is not even recognized as ” real Muslim” in his home state of Pakistan. Rashid points out that at least in the U.S., Americans “celebrate Jewish Albert Einstein, Buddhist Steve Jobs, Christian Bill Gates, and atheist Stephen Hawking – regardless of their faith, or lack thereof.”
Ironically, as Rashid notes, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan maintain a 100 percent literacy rate in a country with only a 50 percent literacy rate. He provides these statistics “not to boast about Ahmadis, but to prove a simple point. Conventional wisdom would assume that a nation would promote and learn from its most educated citizens. Having recognized how Pakistan treats Dr. Abdus Salam, for instance, I realized conventional wisdom was not all that conventional in Pakistan.”
Rashid advises all people to counter religious extremism by fighting “intolerance with tolerance, apathy with education, and fear with compassion.” In reading this line, I cannot help but be struck of how eerily similar it is to an idea uttered by the great Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The Wrong Kind of Muslim is Rashid’s very own jihad. Not a violent jihad, or struggle, like bin Laden’s, but the right kind of jihad – a jihad of the pen. Following a famous hadith of Muhammad, who stated that “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” Rashid is emphasizing the importance of ilm, the Arabic term for knowledge, in his own faith. We would all be wise to heed his advice and take up our own jihad against bigotry and ignorance.
Ultimately, The Wrong Kind of Muslim is a call to fight all forms of religious extremist ideologies, which Rashid describes as a dying, dangerous and destructive ideology that is only worth abandoning and condemning. If you want to channel your inner humanity, if you want to fight ignorance and incivility, then I suggest you read Rashid’s The Wrong Kind of Muslim. He might just convince you that peace cannot exist without religious freedom.